Cover Story: 41 Tips for Building Online Communities
Tips from … Jeff Loper, director of marketing for non-fiction, Thomas Nelson Publishers
Thomas Nelson has been a leader in engaging communities around particular authors. “Those authors who we have involved in the space are, in most cases, outperforming those that aren’t,” Loper says. Key to success is seizing opportunities in an evolving online marketplace. “What doesn’t work,” he notes, “is doing nothing.”
18. Build communities around authors.
“We’ve found that building Web sites or communities around a book isn’t successful,” Loper says. “People ultimately want to be closer to the author, and their books are an extension of them. The closer we can get them to the author, the more effective and engaged the community will be.”
(Editor’s note: This tip contradicts Scholastic’s experience with “39 Clues” and tip no. 35. Both were included to suggest that deciding on whether or not to build a community around an author or a book depends largely on the title and/or author. For example, in the case of “39 Clues,” is the author really what you would want to promote to the book’s audience, or the book/brand itself?)
19. Cultivate audiences across platforms.
Community building has, to this point, largely been done through Facebook, Twitter and blogging, Loper says, though the company also has built communities on Ning, an individualized social network built around interests and passions.
20. Remember, each audience is different.
To customize approaches, Loper will use the same media in different ways to match a particular author, topic or audience. “Social media has allowed us to really fine-tune the markets we reach out to, ” he says. “You can now market your authors and books to the niches most interested as opposed to a mass-marketing approach, which casts a wide net in hopes of reaching those niches.”
21. Monitor responses.
“Otherwise,” Loper says, “you don’t have any idea how or if the community is interacting with the book or author.” His team monitors conversations taking place on Facebook fan pages, blogs and Twitter accounts for those authors who have them. “Using any of these resources, you can monitor conversation about an author or their book, good or bad, and suggest ways in which the author can respond, if they haven’t already done so on their own,” he says.
22. Don’t wait around for a set path to develop.
“So many people are sitting back to wait and see how this is going to play out in hopes that there will be a clearly defined method for marketing using online communities and social networks,” Loper notes. “The truth of the matter is that there won’t be one for the foreseeable future, and there will likely never be one. From here on out, we are in permanent beta because of technology and how rapidly it is advancing. We’ll always be modifying and trying new things to figure out what is going to work best for that particular moment in time.”
23. Have a destination site.
Loper recommends having a destination Web site where you can direct people from social networks. “This is where the author’s Web site comes in,” he says. “The publisher’s Web site can work on occasion, too, but if you’re constantly thinking about how the consumer wants to be closer to the author, the publisher’s Web site isn’t that place most of the time. Think about it: If you’re a fan of U2, do you look at their CD to see who their label is and subscribe to [the label’s] e-mail list? No, you … discover their Web site is U2.com and go there. Why? Because it’s a direct connection.”
Tips from … Maureen Naff, senior global marketing manager at Springer Science + Business Media
Springer provides an example of how academic publishers are reaching communities online, facilitating dialog by treading lightly when necessary, and adjusting to the needs of various audiences.
24. Know your audience.
Research how and when your audiences interact.
25. Know your competition.
“The last thing I want to do at Springer is create something that is already out there,” Naff says. “It doesn’t help anyone. I’d rather our resources and energies go into [meeting a demand] that needs to be filled. We’ve had a couple of successes lately because there was a need [that] we saw, and we jumped on it rather than competing for the same space.”
26. Know what audiences hope to find.
Ask or make some guesses about what you should offer, Naff advises. “The beauty of it is [that] it is quickly changed. There is always the opportunity to improve, reshape and refocus,” she says.
27. Provide continuous opportunities for feedback.
28. Where appropriate, let the community take the lead.
Springer has allowed a couple of sites launched in the last six months to essentially shape themselves. “As a large commercial publisher, we do not always want [our brand] to be inserted aggressively,” Naff says. “We want to let the community cultivate its own innovations and ideas.” The company has kept its presence low-key with the recent launch of TheNeuroNetwork.com, maintaining a small Springer logo on the page while allowing users to shape the tone. “They know we’re there,” Naff says, “but it’s more important in this case to just facilitate it.”
29. Adjust models to match needs.
Because something works on one site does not necessarily mean it’s best for all communities or publications. Springer’s StemCellGateway.net, for instance, functions as much as an information resource as it does a dialogue facilitator. “The look and feel is quite different [from TheNeuroNetwork.com],” Naff says, “but both are trying to fill a need that we saw.”
30. Monitor with an eye to improvement.
While a hands-off approach has been good for some of Springer’s sites, the company is always looking for ways to improve the experience. “If there are parts that are not useful, get rid of them, or if something [new] might be great, add it,” says Naff.